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City to hold special meeting tonight on paying county for police protection

by SCOTT SHINDLEDECKER
The Western News | January 24, 2023 5:00 AM

The City of Libby will hold a special council meeting at 7 p.m. Tuesday to consider paying an invoice of $11,784.88 to the Lincoln County Sheriff’s Office.

At its regular meeting last week, council tabled paying the bill after some members voiced concerns.

The situation began after three of the force’s officers - Chris Pape, Ian Smith and Cody DeWitt - gave their resignations on Nov. 21, 2022.

City officials, despite holding a public meeting the night of Nov. 21, did not share the information of the resignations until a Dec. 5 meeting after a Dec. 3 post on social media exposed the matter.

At some point, the city discussed paying the county for its officers to cover shifts left open by the resignations of the city policemen.

The Sheriff’s Office ended up submitting an invoice on Jan. 3 for 18 overtime shift coverages and mileage expenses for three pay periods from Nov. 21, 2022, through Dec. 30, 2022.

Councilors Hugh Taylor and Gary Beach were against paying the bill. Some of the concern centered around whether it was legal for the county to invoice the city for police coverage. City Attorney Dean Chisholm said at a previous meeting that the county is required to provide law enforcement services in the entire county and enforce the laws of the state.

City Administrator Sam Sikes provided a letter dated Jan. 4, 2023, that illustrated the difference in paying its officers for the previously mentioned time frame. His analysis of the pay rates between city officers working normal hours and county officers working overtime would cost the city an additional $3,351.59.

At the Dec. 19 city meeting, councilors were presented with a memorandum of agreement that would have established a basic framework for the county sheriff’s office to be reimbursed for overtime its officers worked and mileage incurred while covering shifts left empty following the resignation of the officers.

They didn’t make any decisions at that meeting, citing concerns over the open-ended nature of the proposed agreement that didn’t specify an end date or possible costs.

The item to pay the bill is the only one on the agenda for tonight’s meeting. Public comment will be taken.

It is not known if any information about the city’s second investigation into alleged misconduct by Chief Scott Kessel will be shared at tonight’s meeting.

The three officers who resigned wrote a letter that ran in The Western News on Dec. 27. It included their allegations of misconduct, including possible illegal billing of hours, forced overtime and that Kessel was neglecting certain responsibilities and not concerned for the welfare of the officers in the department.

Then on Dec. 7, city attorney Dean Chisholm said Kessel had been placed on paid administrative leave pending completion of an inquiry by city officials in regard to officer complaints.

According to a Dec. 20 news release from the city, Mayor Peggy Williams wrote that, “On Nov. 21, 2022, three employees resigned abruptly expressing dissatisfaction with workplace conditions. As a result, the city initiated its own investigation, which included interviews of current and former employees and a review of other relevant evidence. As is common for investigations of this type, the city took the additional step of placing Libby City of Police Chief Scott Kessel on administrative leave until the investigation was completed.

"The investigation did not indicate that there were any violations of laws or policies to support termination of the chief of police.”

Kessel returned to work on Dec. 27.

But at the Jan. 3 city meeting, Smith disputed a part of the Dec. 21 statement that was issued by Williams.

“No former employees were contacted during this investigation by the city,” Smith said. “The Lincoln County Sheriff’s Office was not contacted, either.”

Chisholm said during the Jan. 3 meeting that the allegations by the officers in the letter were not shared with the city so they weren’t investigated.

Mayor Williams said the city hired an independent investigator, Breck Law Office, Columbia Falls, to conduct a third-party investigation into allegations by three former City of Libby police officers against Kessel.

Williams said the investigation would beginning Thursday, Jan. 12, and was expected to last two days.

Kessel recently went on sick leave sometime earlier this month. City officials didn’t provide a specific date for when Kessel began taking sick leave.

For those who wish to access the meeting electronically with ZOOM, dial 253-215-8782. The meeting ID is 4042719951 and the password is 151041.